How UN Policing Protects Civilians and Enables Sustainable Peace

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“Policing is about interaction, and if you are looking for lasting sustainable peace, then interaction, engagement, conversation, dialogue are very important. It is policing that enables this political process,” said Boniface Rutikanga, a former United Nations peacekeeper and now police adviser to the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the UN.

Mr. Rutikanga was speaking to a February 13th IPI policy forum, cosponsored by the Permanent Mission of Italy to the UN, launching the IPI policy paper Protection through Policing: The Protective Role of UN Police in Peace Operations by Charles T. Hunt. The paper examines the role of UN Police (UNPOL) in the protection of civilians (POC) and identifies UNPOL’s contributions and comparative advantages, as well as the challenges it faces.

Dr. Hunt explained that while police have contributed to protection of civilians since the emergence of the POC mandate, they had more recently been thrust into the frontlines of some of protection efforts in places like Darfur, Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, often in densely populated environments. Despite the fact that police provide “unique capabilities and expertise,” and that it is “arguably ingrained in this idea that police’s inherent function is to serve and protect,” missions have “generally undervalued or overlooked some of these protective roles of police, often relying more on militarized approaches to protection,” he said. UNPOL often appear as an afterthought, and tend to remain in the shadow of military components.

Listing some of the comparative advantages that UNPOL officers have over their military or civilian counterparts, Dr. Hunt said they were more skilled at tackling threats when violence does not involve the sustained use of military weaponry, better placed to play a deterrent role, and well positioned to partner with a range of others to protect civilians and establish trust with national law enforcement agencies and the local populations, giving them some ownership over a sustainable protective environment.

Among the challenges he cited were a “lack of clarity in the scope of the mandate,” especially in contexts where UNPOL can use all necessary means to protect civilians but does not have an executive mandate, and poor coordination where the line between criminal and military threats becomes “blurry.” He also mentioned the risks of technical approaches to capacity-building which can perpetuate, rather than transform, politicized security sectors, and instances where the UN mission gets “trapped” in partnerships with the host governments that end up “exposing and imperiling” civilians.

Dr. Hunt said that despite the “significant” contributions that police made to protecting civilians, there are still perennial issues of capabilities, capacity and tools, including the “insufficient quantity, quality, and flexibility of UNPOL assets and resources.” He added, “POC is still not really in the bloodstream of police on the ground at all levels. Police can do a lot more to leverage their comparative advantages, strengthen their contribution, and help UNPOL meet the growing recommendations for their role.” Dr. Hunt recommended that UNPOL have a clearer voice in decision-making processes, and adequate monitoring and evaluation systems to inform planning and gauge their impact, among other recommendations proposed in his paper.

Namie Di Razza, Senior Fellow at IPI’s Brian Urquhart Center for Peace Operations and head of IPI’s POC Program, noted that one of the program’s objectives was to “clarify the roles and responsibilities of the different actors involved in the implementation of POC and for a better use of tailored approaches, including armed and unarmed strategies.” Adding that police should be “fully integrated” in protection strategies, she observed that “in times of peace, the police are the main actor handling public security and public order, and their core function is often defined by the mantra ‘to serve and protect.’” She commended Dr. Hunt’s paper for highlighting ways to “strengthen people-centered and community-oriented approaches in peacekeeping and alternative options to heavy military presences for future peace operations models.”

Shaowen Yang, Deputy Police Adviser, Police Division, UN Department of Peace Operations, noted that there are nearly 8,700 UNPOL personnel in nine peacekeeping operations and seven special political missions (SPMs) contributing support to member states in realizing “effective, efficient, representative, responsive, and accountable police service” that serve the population.

He pointed out that in most countries, police are regarded as a “service” rather than a “force,” and that “policing must be entrusted to civil servants” obligated to respect and protect civilian lives, and operating within a legal framework based on the rule of law.” In his remarks, he highlighted the vision of UNPOL, seeking to build a police that is “modern, agile, flexible, transparent, accountable… people-centered, right-based.” UNPOL therefore acts as a promoter of international human rights norms in the host country, and pursues its mandate in compliance with the Human Rights Due Diligence Policy (HRDDP).

Rania Dagash, Head of the Policy and Best Practices Service, Division of Policy, Evaluation and Training, UN Department of Peace Operations, emphasized that since the first POC UN Security Council Resolution twenty years ago, there has been considerable growth for police in POC. “We highlight not just the criticality of the police component in POC but emphasize the community orientation of policing, the patrolling of our vulnerable communities… It is undervalued, it is under tapped, and often overlooked.” Echoing the words of Mr. Rutikanga, she said, “Police contribute to dialogue and engagement, which is fundamentally a political role” as they help promote and advocate protection priorities with national and local stakeholders.

As examples of their effectiveness, Ms. Dagash said that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mali, UN police had prevented turmoil between host state police and civilians in election contexts, in South Sudan UN police had prevented outbreaks of violence among the 200,000 internally displaced people there, and in Gao in Northern Mali, UNPOL had played a major role in enabling cooperation between the local population and local leaders. “UNPOL created networks for information sharing that allowed the local population and national authority to make decisions together,” she said. She also warned against substituting uniformed soldiers with police. “Police and military are suited for different functions. Police should not be seen as a cheaper or easier tool for military function.”

In remarks preceding the discussion, Stefano Stefanile, Deputy Permanent Representative of Italy to the UN, stressed the central importance of UNPOL to peace operations. “UN policing is an instrumental factor that establishes the link between peacekeeping and peacebuilding,” he said. “UN policing is at the core of the spirit and philosophy of the A4P (Action for Peacekeeping) reform proposed by the Secretary-General. UNPOL serves to restore mutual trust among communities to favor reconciliation.”

Ms. Di Razza moderated the discussion.